business

The Secrets to Successful Episodic Gaming

The term means different things to different gamers, but Kuma Games head Keith Harper models his games on TV programming

The term 'episodic gaming' has been thrown around by people in the industry quite a bit in the last year or so, but no one can agree on what it means apparently. For Kuma Games CEO Keith Halper, it's all about following the model of television. Looking at the business in this way has its advantages.

YOU KEEP USING THAT WORD, BUT I DON'T THINK IT MEANS WHAT YOU THINK IT MEANS

"Episodic Games" has become a much-used term of late, but based on the variety of games called "episodic" -- Sin, Half-Life 2: Episode Two, Sam and Max, History Channel's ShootOut!, the DinoHunters and, of course, Kuma\War -- we don't all mean the same thing by the term.

Creating and releasing games in episodes holds major financial advantages over traditional game development -- one is able to "pilot" games and find out if they work prior to making multi-million dollar investments. Additionally, episodic games are well suited to digital download: bite-sized entertainment with all the graphic immersiveness of multi-gigabyte retail games. Finally, publishers are learning the opposite of the bulk discount -- the single-unit gouge -- and are making a premium selling "episodes" at the same price we're used to paying for multi-level expansion packs.

But Episodic doesn't mean getting less for more to consumers. It doesn't mean getting follow-on games with the same characters months or years in the future. Episodic means 'Television.'

In my opinion traditional games are the interactive equivalent of Hollywood movies -- big budget, years of production, amazing advances in the graphical experience. On the business side, it's a Big-Risk Hit-Driven model, with major publishers working to mitigate risk (like Hollywood) with stars, franchises, and licenses.

TV (and episodic games) are scheduled entertainment, weekly installments, character-driven and, above all, free. On the business side, it's lower risk, edgy content, ad-sponsored content with a drive toward evergreen titles fit for "syndication" and other follow-on sales.

It's X-Men and Star Wars on one hand, and Heroes and Star Trek on the other. You don't have to weigh them against each other -- they're all great! Both movies and TV have their advantages, and we'll find -- as different as they are -- that both episodic games and traditional game models have their place.

IT'S HOLLYWOOD ON THE LINE

The cost makes traditional games a tough sell for most TV properties. While 'hugerific' franchises (24, The Sopranos) can command giant licensing fees, the bulk of TV properties miss out on the Big Game Opportunity. In a nutshell, by the time a TV franchise is big enough to justify the tens of millions of dollars a top-shelf gamemaker must spend on it -- say, in season 3 -- there's no way to know that by season 5 (when the game is ready for retail) it's still going to be a show people care about. And if you rush the game (Alias, anyone?) you suffer as well. So, great shows we know will be classics get made into great and classic games, and the rest get lost.

In our game- and gamer-focused world, that's a problem. If only someone could crack the price and production model -- produce games on the same schedule as TV and within a budget that makes sense -- TV content owners could leverage their existing distribution (on TV and other video portals) to build audience, sell ads, and improve their own business.

CUT TO: Episodic Games.

But there are challenges. To work for TV in this way games need to be produced on very short schedules (a typical TV show will go from script to screen in less than 4 weeks), low budget and still mirror the quality of the show. South Park may work as a Flash game, but The Unit sure won't. Furthermore, there are distinct distribution challenges: rapid download, global reach, ad distribution, changes to executables after the fact (when episode 11 does something exciting but unanticipated at the head of the season), and more.

It's not a matter of chopping up games and shoving them down some TV pipe, but of designing games and game platforms specifically for television's unique creative and business requirements.

THE REVEAL

TV partnerships have proven to be extremely powerful in our games. I think any gamer who's ever been a fan or a TV series has wanted to "play" the show, to be in the show in some sense. But it's interesting to consider how the creative requirements of games change when they're partnered with TV.

Is it necessary to re-create the episode just seen? Does multiplayer break the fiction -- and who gets to play Captain Stubbing? How do stories occur in MMOs? Who are "you" in an FPS? Can the outcome of the game vary from the outcome of the episodes (and if not, where's the game?) Can fans influence the course of a 'season'? What happens to online 'gameisodes' at the end of the season?

The answers to these are only found in the doing. We've released just shy of 100 episodes, gotten feedback from millions of gamers, hosted tens of millions of game sessions and still find our game play changing week after week. The key is 'approach.' How you approach the creative process -- the tools, experience and method you bring -- is the key to success, rather than any kind of game play template.

CHANNEL SURFING

Think 100 episodes sounds crazy? (If you're a developer, I bet you do!) Now imagine a new show, every hour of every day of the week -- that's what an Episodic Games Network is going to need to look like. It'll be a vast programming guide of game series and gamer experiences, much as TV has delivered for most of our lifetimes. TV has had decades to perfect a model of entertainment that includes a great variety of content in a mix of genres, releasing on "appointment" schedules. Tonight at 9 p.m. I'll be watching the Sopranos on HBO. I may hang around for whatever is next on the schedule and I promise I'll be talking about it with my friends tomorrow ... to be honest, I'll be seeking out friends to talk about it. TV's model is about building buzz and maintaining audience (dare we call it community?) in large enough chunks to service advertisers with specific messaging needs. It's appointment gaming for the "water cooler" effect and it works.

As the game equivalent to TV, episodic gamers and gamemakers need vast channels of game content for surfing, mixes of game play style, and 'ripped from the headlines' shows and other forms of entertainment novelty. That's what's required to make Episodic Games a term with meaning.

    Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal. LEARN MORE